Palestine +100 Launch: ‘A Beautiful Little Experiment’

The newly launched Palestine + 100 works to bring together voices and stories that have historically been at the margins of the SF conversation:

By Sinéad Murphy

Published in July 2019, Palestine +100: Stories from a Century After the Nakba (Comma Press) is understood by its publishers to be the first-ever collection of Palestinian-authored science fiction stories. On Friday, September 13, contributors Selma Dabbagh, Samir El-Youssef, and Anwar Hamed joined the volume’s editor Basma Ghalayini in conversation with Ra Page of Comma Press, to formally launch the anthology. Described by Ra as a “beautiful little experiment,” the volume builds on the success of Iraq +100 (2016). Both anthologies – which Page suggested may come to form the beginning of a series – have been published in a spirit of “storming the fort of science fiction,” in Page’s words, and representing voices and stories historically marginalized within the science fiction canon.

Referencing the widely acknowledged aphorism that all great science fiction is about the present, Page described the anthology as a distillation of concerns and circumstances ongoing in Palestine. The 1948 Nakba and its aftereffects are fundamental to the various future visions these writers offer, from the technologically sophisticated scenarios of Emad El-Din Aysha’s “Digital Nation” and Ahmed Masoud’s “Application 39,” to the grim, apocalyptic imaginaries of Saleem Haddad’s “Song of the Birds” and Rawan Yaghi’s “Commonplace.” As Ghalayini explained, the Nakba shapes Palestine’s present and the past, and will continue to shape its future. Science fiction, she feels, can be an apt mode of writing with which to highlight the distortions of time and space wrought by displacement and settler occupation—it can capture the experience of being “a prisoner of both history and time.”[1]

Dabbagh, El-Youssef, and Hamed announced themselves as newcomers to science fiction writing, and each read an extract from their contributions. For Dabbagh, authoring the piece posed a challenge, as she aimed to offer hope while avoiding appearing naive about the realities of the occupation. Her story, “Sleep it Off, Dr Schott,” envisions that the siege of Gaza is ongoing; in Israel, a referendum has been passed that legalizes the expulsion of anyone whose DNA is found to be less than 50% Jewish. The story takes place in an underground “Secular Scientific Enclave” in Gaza, and focuses on the relationship between two coworkers: a left-wing Israeli scientist and a Palestinian professor. Playing on the supposed clinical rationality of the highly-technologized setting, Dabbagh’s story highlights the illogical and unstable ways in which partition is maintained, and gestures to the eugenicist fears which underscore ideologies of segregation.

Hamed’s narrative “The Key” (trans. by Andrew Leber) also engages with themes of partition and segregation. It imagines the creation of a “gravity wall” which enables the state to “regulate, update, [and] control” its borders using a complex coding system: “people the state wanted would be let in, and people it didn’t would be kept out.” [2] In this sense, the story is suggestive of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005 not as an end to occupation, but rather to its evolution into what Helga Tawil-Souri has termed a technologized and increasingly “frictionless” occupation.[3] Citizens permitted to settle in this newly secured state find themselves tormented by the disembodied sound of a key scraping in the locks of their doors; this repeated occurrence is taken to be the spectral presence of Palestinians who have been expelled. This motif perhaps served as the inspiration for the cover of the book: it depicts an abstract image of a lever-type key superimposed upon a topological map, a combination strongly evocative of the displacement and disenfranchisement of over 700,000 Palestinians during the Nabka.

El-Youssef described his story, “The Association” (trans. by Raph Cormack) as a whodunnit in which the murder of an obscure historian prompts the narrator, a journalist, to investigate state-sponsored suppression of past injustices committed against Palestinians. The narrative can be contextualized, he said, within the widespread disappointment and discontent with the terms of the Oslo Accords. Central to the story is the idea that remembrance of the past is key to the achievement of any genuine peace, and that any vision of the future which redacts or fails to acknowledge the events of the past cannot be sustained. It is little wonder that ruminating on the past dominates his creative choices, he said, given that the situation in Palestine has remained “an ongoing state of emergency since 1948.”

“The past,” Ghalayini writes in her introduction, “is everything to a Palestinian writer; it is the only thing that makes their current existence and their identity meaningful.”[4] Indeed, each of the writers expressed a number of ways in which the events of and following 1948 have come to dominate —  and sometimes curtail — their creative impulses. Hamed connected the comparative lack of science fiction by Palestinians until recent years to the lived experience of an environment dominated by contingency. Palestinians must constantly “improvise,” he says, in the face of curfews, travel restrictions, and countless other forms of systematic aggression. His words are echoed by Ghalayini’s introduction to the anthology, in which she describes science fiction as:

a luxury, to which Palestinians haven’t felt they can afford to escape. The cruel present (and the traumatic past) have too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ imaginations for fanciful ventures into possible futures.[5]

Dabbagh observed that many of the stories in Palestine +100 imagine the siege of Gaza as ongoing, as though the contributors are already losing the capacity to see a Palestinian future beyond the occupation. This issue was crystallized for her, she recounted, when she attended Eyal Weizman’s exhibition of his Decolonizing Architecture project at the Tate (2010). The exhibition featured models of settlements, barracks, and other infrastructures reimagined in a speculative future in which the occupation has ended and the land returned to Palestinian inhabitants. In dismissing the notion as futile, she said, she realized the degree to which she had becoming “blocked;” unable to entertain any such future trajectory. The panelists agreed that science fiction can be a particularly powerful set of imaginative tools with which to cut through this sense of disaffection. Dabbagh felt that collaboration between those in hard sciences and science fiction writers — and indeed, those working in creative arts generally — will be necessary in order to arrive at a better conception of the future for Palestine.

While these narratives focus on envisioning the future, the panellists also spoke of the sense of duty they sometimes feel to act as a kind of spokesperson for a collective experience in the present — a particularly difficult experience for those in the diaspora. The persistence of this positioning was evidenced by some of the questions from the audience, which made clear that many English-speaking readers might come to the volume without much understanding of Palestinian society and culture, and the ways in which the ongoing settler occupation dominates Palestinians’ lives in shared but heterogeneous ways. Dabbagh, who writes in English and has never lived in Palestine, connected this directly to the aesthetics of her work: Her book Out of It (2011) is so named as it aims to capture this experience of being physically outside of Gaza, and of feeling politically disengaged. On a related note, el-Youssef explained that a heightened consciousness of how an Anglophone reader might interpret his story influenced his writing; it affected his choice of metaphors, for instance. As translator Jonathan Wright pointed out from the audience, however, writers of science fiction often generate neologisms and engage in experiments with language, and exploring these narrative strategies may offer exciting ways in which to bolster creative writing in Arabic.

There was a consensus among the panelists that the majority of the stories in Palestine +100 are far from hopeful in tone. However, the release of the volume was met not only with hope but with excitement and avid interest, with attendees crowding to purchase a copy following the event. The future, Page stated, belongs to everyone; this anthology seeks to imagine that possibility into existence.

[1]Saleem Haddad, ‘Song for the Birds’, in Palestine +100: stories from a century after the Nakba, ed. by Basma Ghalayini (Manchester: Comma Press, 2019), pp. 1-19 (p.2).
[2]Anwar Hamed, ‘The Key’, in Palestine +100: stories from a century after the Nakba, ed. by Basma Ghalayini (Manchester: Comma Press, 2019), pp. 65-76 (p. 69).
[3]See Tawil-Souri’s, ‘Digital Occupation: Gaza’s High-Tech Enclosure’, Journal of Palestine Studies, 41. 2 (Winter 2012), pp. 27-43.
[4]Basma Ghalayini, Introduction, in Palestine +100: stories from a century after the Nakba, ed. by Ghalayini (Manchester: Comma Press, 2019), pp. vii-xiii (p. x).
[5]Ibid., x.

Sinéad Murphy is a Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature in King’s College London, and is an Assistant Editor for @FantastikaPress. Her research interests are in speculative fiction, Arab literature and culture, world-literary studies and postcolonial theory. You can find her online as @DrS1neadMurphy.